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Hope for Alzheimer's Patients

TBO.COM EDITORIAL JAN. 22, 2012

Discussions about Alzheimer's disease are inevitably dreary, as anyone knows who has dealt with a loved one slipping into its cruel fog.

The incurable affliction robs individuals of their memory and sense of self.

Breakthroughs are at hand that should allow Floridians to confront Alzheimer's with hope, even optimism.

But state leaders need to be serious about confronting this scourge. The numbers are frightening:

One in 40 Floridians suffers from Alzheimer's. Florida's total of 523,000 patients represents roughly 10 percent of the U.S. total of about 5.4 million.

The number of Alzheimer's patients in Florida is expected to grow 40 percent by 2025.

Health care costs related to dementia exceed $15 billion in Florida.

Perhaps the most frightening number is this: Florida spends nothing on Alzheimer's research. The state, to its credit, invested $100 million in developing the Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, but hasn't invested a cent in research since 2008, making it difficult to attract researchers and grant dollars.

This is false economy. The state spends more than $1 billion of its $17 billion Medicaid budget on the care for Alzheimer's patients in nursing homes. Nine out of 10 patients are cared for by family members at home. Families' savings are drained and caregivers must miss — or give up — work.

But despite the depressing numbers and the state's confounding indifference, researchers have never been as excited about treatment possibilities.

Dave Morgan, the director of the University of South Florida Health Byrd Alzheimer's Institute, says, "I am absolutely convinced by 2020, we will be able to prevent Alzheimer's."

He believes physicians will be able to ward off the disease the same way they curtail heart disease, by addressing high cholesterol, high blood pressure and other risk factors.

Technological advancements coupled with discoveries at the Byrd Institute and other research facilities have revealed how to attack Alzheimer's.

Not long ago, a dissection of the brain during an autopsy was the only way to detect the nerve-killing amyloid proteins associated with Alzheimer's. Now PET scans (positron emission tomography) enable physicians to see the disease as it progresses.

With the scans, researchers found amyloids in many individuals who had no symptoms. Inevitably, though, they got the disease as the proteins built up over the years.

The conclusion: Scientists can detect individuals with the amyloids early and begin treating them before symptoms — and permanent brain damage — occur.

Medications are being developed that delay the disease. Morgan is confident with more research it soon will be possible to dramatically stall, even prevent, the disease.

This won't mean Alzheimer's will be eliminated. As with many diseases, early detection will be the key, and not everyone will choose to be tested.

But the number of Alzheimer's victims should plummet, as should the costs to society.

That's why Florida leaders should not ignore the enormous savings — not to mention the rescued lives — to be achieved by investing in research. Moreover, Florida is one of only 11 states without an Alzheimer's action plan prepared to meet the needs of its aging population.

The Byrd Institute requested a modest $3 million from the Legislature, but officials are not optimistic. Instead, they are focused on spreading the word to the public and government officials alike about breakthroughs and the need for better planning.

There are some encouraging bills this session. A measure offered by Rep. Janet Cruz of Tampa and Sen. Stephen Wise of Duval would call for more education, coordination and planning on Alzheimer's. Legislation by Matt Hudson of Broward and Garrett Richter of Collier would create a task force to develop a state Alzheimer's strategy.

The Alzheimer's Adult Day Care Dignity Act proposed by Rep. Richard Corcoran and Sen. Mike Fasano, both of Pasco, would establish regulations for adult day care facilities.

All deserve support. But lawmakers also should begin investing in research.

As former House Speaker and current presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has stressed, not doing anything about Alzheimer's debilitating costs is not being frugal. The deficit hawk earlier this year said, "I want to know, not what we can afford in the federal budget. I want to know what (researchers) can do if they have the resources they need to accelerate the breakthroughs to save lives and to save money."

The evidence at the Byrd Institute is that researchers can do a lot.